Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:58 AM
Africa Cup Preview
The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations marks a major shift for Africa’s premier soccer tournament. For the first time, the tournament takes place during the northern hemisphere’s summer, having previously been in January and February. The battle was always between the big European leagues’ desire to keep their African stars during the middle of the season, and CAF’s wish to keep the tournament away from climactic extremes. North Africa can be dangerously hot in the summer; West Africa can be unplayably rainy. This year’s edition comes from Egypt, where summer temperatures frequently soar into three figures.
The other big chance is the expansion from 16 teams to 24, copying the European Championships. This means that three teams will qualify from four of the six groups. The idea is to give smaller nations a chance on the big stage, and three debutants are making their bow in the shape of Madagascar, Mauritania and Burundi. However there are fears that AFCON, already low on goals compared with other big tournaments, will become even more defensive as the value of a group stage draw increases.
So onto the football itself, and we have a clear favourite in the shape of hosts Egypt at 4/1, who also possess the continent’s best player in Mohamed Salah. Though they were hopeless at the World Cup last year, Egypt are the kings of AFCON, having won it a record seven times.
The team has become more attacking since Javier Aguirre replaced Hector Cuper, and the emergence of Marwen Mohsen and Trézéguet mean they are not quite as reliant on Salah as they were in Russia.
They have not lost at home to an African side for five years, and will be backed by passionate support. The question is whether they will buckle under the huge pressure, but even at a short price the hosts look good value.
There are eight other teams that could reasonably be called heavyweights in this competition, and there are two joint second favourites at 6/1.
One is Ghana, the nearly men of recent years. The Black Stars have reached the semis of the last six tournaments (including two finals) but have not won AFCON since 1982. They are very experienced and have huge numbers of options in midfield.
However a feature of this year’s AFCON is the number of world class wingers or wide forwards: Salah, Sadio Mané, Hakim Ziyech, Nicolas Pepe, Riyad Mahrez. Ghana’s weakness is the lack of a true superstar going forward. They should progress serenely in a group including Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau, but may be edged out in the later stages once again.
The other 6/1 shots are Senegal, who have never won the competition. Mané and Kalidou Koulibaly are their stars, and they are the highest ranked African team by FIFA. They were Africa’s best side at the World Cup and were really unlucky not to qualify for the knockout stages. If there is a weakness, it is a lack of creativity in midfield. If opponents sit deep, Senegal could be frustrated. But they should go far.
Next come Nigeria at 8/1, who were respectable at the World Cup, losing to Croatia and Argentina but beating Iceland. They have possibly the easiest group, with Guinea, Madagascar and Burundi and also have the advantage of playing their group games in the port of Alexandria, where temperatures are cooler.
In Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa they have talented, if inconsistent attackers, while Wilfred Ndidi has become an outstanding ball-winner at Leicester City. One big problem is in goal, where young Francis Uzoho is very error-prone.
Ivory Coast have long since waved farewell to Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and the Touré brothers, but at 10/1 they are still worthy of consideration. They are in the group of death along with Morocco, South Africa and Namibia, but they should qualify from it with an attack led by Pepe and Wilfried Zaha.
But this is still a young team, and the absence of Eric Bailly means they look weak at centre-back. The 2021 AFCON might be a better bet for the Elephants.
Morocco will face Ivory Coast in the group but at 12/1 they look a really interesting proposition. An early defeat to Iran derailed their World Cup immediately, but they were good in a 1-0 defeat to Potugal and excellent drawing 2-2 with Spain in their subsequent matches. In Hakim Ziyech they have one of Africa’s most improved players after he starred in Ajax’s run to the Champions League semi-finals.
In Herve Renard, Morocco have the manager who knows this competition better than anyone. At their best, Morocco play better football than anyone else in Africa. At 34, Mbark Boussoufa remains important in midfield while Mehdi Benatia commands the defence well. In Nabil Dirar, Achraf Hakimi and Noussair Mazroui, they have the best options at full-back on the continent. They will also cope better with the dry heat of North Africa than the big West African teams.
At the World Cup, their weakness was a lack of cutting edge. Their striker in Egypt will be 22 year-old Youssef En-Neysri, who impressed for Levante in Spain last season. If he fires, Morocco will be hard to stop.
Algeria are also 12/1, but look a much less attractive bet. Their creative trio of Mahrez, Yacine Brahimi and Sofiane Feghouli can be devastating, but the team in recent years has been less than the sum of its parts. They will need a huge improvement to go deep into the tournament.
There are two 14/1 shots, including 2017’s surprise winners Cameroon. They boast one of the best goalkeepers in the competition in Ajax’s Andre Onana, although the absence of Liverpool’s excellent centre-back Joel Matip might be too big a problem for Clarence Seedorf’s side to overcome.
Also coming in at 14/1 are Tunisia. They have a reputation for being defensive and organised, but unlike at the World Cup they can call on the services of the highly talented Youssef Msakni. But their path looks difficult. Even if they win their group they may well come up against Morocco or Ivory Coast in the second round. All in all they lack the quality to make a serious challenge.
One underdog who look worthy of a mention are Uganda at 150/1.
They have the advantage of a kind group. Although they face Egypt, they also come up against DR Congo, whose best days are behind them, and a flawed Zimbabwe side.
Uganda are just the kind of team who could do well at a 24-team tournament. They lack stars, but they are very organised. They have improved hugely under French coach Sebastien Desabre and could well be an awkward opponent for the big guns in the knockout stages.
Egypt at 4/1
Morocco at 12/1
Uganda at 150/1